The media went into a feeding frenzy: "Powerful Male Looking for Maid to Marry," "Glass Ceilings at the Altar as Well as the Boardroom," "They're Too Smart for These Guys" cried the news and editorial pages of major dailies nationwide. More than 100 newspaper and magazine articles, plus dozens of radio spots (aired multiple times each), plus TV commentaries -- and, of course, countless Internet mentions -- grew from the Michigan study.
Why question a real study, then, especially when many educated minds apparently had a chance to review it? Because the facts don't add up. This "news" was based on the opinions of 120 male undergraduates who were shown photos of a man and a woman, given a scenario about the person as either above or below them in an office hierarchy, and then asked a series of questions about that person.
So 120 guys just out of puberty said that they were more attracted to women who weren't that challenging to them. And this is national news?
To throw more fat into the fire, a multiuniversity English and Scottish study emerged a few weeks later, reporting that women with higher IQ scores were less likely to marry than women with lower IQ scores, whereas the opposite was true for men. This exhaustive study, well-researched and rigorous, followed nearly 900 men and women from age 11 through adulthood. With each up-tick in IQ scores, women were less likely to have married by midlife, but men were that much more likely to marry.
Once again, the researchers were reputable. Plus, in this case, the number of individuals researched and the range in their backgrounds gave the study additional validity. Finally, the study's methods withstood examination of solid social science research procedure. With apparent justification, worldwide media gave the study thorough coverage. Scores of stories appeared on TV, radio, and in print -- again, not to mention the volume on the Internet.
Why, then, cast any doubt on the results, or on the media's exhaustive international coverage of the announcement?
Here's why: This study was conducted on men and women born in 1921 -- men and women who would be 85 years old today. These women were born seven years before the UK granted equal voting rights to women. When these seniors were coming of age in the early 1940s, women had to resign their jobs upon marriage and top universities were still closed to female students. Not until these women reached their 50s would equal pay be implemented in the Civil Service. The results may be valid, but the idea that the gender norms of Grandma's generation are newsworthy and applicable to the lives of young, smart women today is laughable.
Does Bad News Sell?
Clearly, these studies didn't merit the vast attention they received. So why do the news media and popular culture outlets so eagerly perpetuate destructive bad news for successful women? Harvard professor Russell Muirhead has suggested that the average Jane and Joe are comforted to think that unusually smart, successful people are living less happy lives, "that for all educated women know, they might not know enough to find love."